Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Teenager Flowers, Plath-style, in the Bell Jar of New York

       (6/8/12) The Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City plays a prominent role in Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." Her protagonist spends the summer of 1953 in the legendary old monstrosity while struggling through a fashion-magazine internship, just as Plath did. Three years before her iconic, semi-autobiographical novel was published in the U.S., I came to New York for a summer job with a Madison Avenue advertising agency, and I stayed at the 23-story, 700-room Barbizon as well.  I was 18 years old.
    Each night, I hauled my bedspread and pillow up 15 flights of stairs to the roof. I did it for the magic -- for the sheer joy and beauty of lying there, surrounded by glittering skyscrapers and that pulsing urban dynamism that floated up from the street. Imagine having this place you'd always dreamed of, soaring majestically all around you as you slept.

          When I trudged back downstairs the next morning, my outfit for the day was already laid out on the bed, complete with scarves, jewelry, tinted pantyhose -- anything I could conjure up to make myself look like a stylish advertising executive rather than a teenager from the wilderness.
    I had secured my internship with Trahey/Wolf Advertising, for the summer of 1968, after becoming intrigued by founding partner Jane Trahey, who was renowned as the first woman to head a major ad agency. She was hailed as a trailblazer, whose commercials reflected a refreshing wit and flair.
    I had seen her interviewed on TV, and she seemed to be an eye-rolling wise-cracker and a cynical curmudgeon.  I felt that I could glean priceless insights about the ad world from her, and that in return, I could cheer her up with my oh-my-gosh enthusiasm.

    I blithely informed her that I would need to be paid enough to be ensconced in the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which I had never heard of and knew nothing about. (My mother's fancy friends had convinced her that New York was a hideous, death-drenched metropolis, and that if I stayed in the tightly chaperoned hotel, at least I'd be safe when I was in bed. My mother made this a condition of my summer away from home, which seems reasonable, given my age.)
    Jane scoffed at that, saying, "I'll pay you minimum wage, and you'll earn it."
Sylvia Plath and I agree: The Barbizon was Bizarre.
     The Barbizon was, in itself, a major character during my thrilling summer in the Big City.  I later learned that it was also a "character" in several classic movies, including "Stage Door," "The Best of Everything," "The Group," and "Marjorie Morningstar," as well as in the steamy, lowbrow fiction of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins, and Judith Krantz.  
    In the TV series "Mad Men," Don Draper's love interest, Bethany Van Nuys, lives in the Barbizon, circa 1964.
And she looks like the ideal resident.
    For many years, Mademoiselle magazine placed its 20 "guest editors" -- students who won a competition to work on the annual college issue -- in the Barbizon for three months. That's where Sylvia Plath comes in. 
Plath was brilliant but tormented.
    At that time, I was unfamiliar with Plath, the superb poet who had committed suicide five years earlier, but I read "The Bell Jar" when it had its U.S. release in 1971, and the similarity of her reactions and mine to the Barbizon experience (she called it the Amazon) was almost eerie.

    The Barbizon was rather foreboding in its its grandiose architecture -- which blended Romanesque, Gothic, and Moorish elements -- as well as its snooty pretensions (prospective tenants, in earlier times, were graded on looks, dress and demeanor and were required to provide three letters of reference). 
No one ever told me about this nice little hangout.
     It had promoted itself relentlessly and successfully since it opened in 1927. It was in the fancy part of town, of course, at Lexington and 63rd.
    "For a small-town girl with a dream, from the Roaring '20s through the 1960s, there was no address more glamorous than New York’s 'women only' Barbizon Hotel....It would shelter a parade of yet-to-be-discovered damsels -- Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, and Cybill Shephard," a Vanity Fair article gushed. 
    Some airlines required that their stewardesses stay at the Barbizon during layovers. The famed Katharine Gibbs secretarial school made it mandatory as well.
These poor secretarial students had to live among the greatest beauties of the era.
     "It flourished through the mid 20th century as the ultimate career-girl sorority house, where anxious parents parked white-gloved daughters aspiring to be models, actresses, writers and secretaries," the article added. 

    Gotham, these parents feared, was awash in a multitude of horrid sensual temptations, as well as crime.    
     Barbizon girls "had a reputation around town for being the creme de la creme" -- a reputation that the hotel encouraged by releasing tidbits to the gossip and society columns. Some called the hotel "the greatest concentration of beauty east of Hollywood.” 
I think the pool and dining room must have been closed for business during my stay.
I wouldn't have wanted to go swimming anyway, and I certainly couldn't afford to eat out.
    The Barbizon played the role of in loco parentis, and by some accounts it enjoyed this tyranny rather too much. For me, there is an "ick factor" in the reform-school approach to keeping residents in line, a perversity that I wouldn't have tolerated. 
    Stern "monitors" roamed the various floors to ensure that no rules were being violated. The rich and beautiful girls, with their designer ensembles and charm-school airs, made life miserable for the Plain Janes from the nation's heartland. 
The fancy girls were probably getting manicures while homely ones stretched their butts.
    Pranks that I would characterize as hazing were not uncommon. Gossip was rampant. The sordid specter of lesbianism (which they spelled with a capital 'L' back then) was ever-present. And the rules against having men in your room were violated with a creepy sort of sneer and hilarity.
    Having 700 young women living in such close quarters just sounds like a bad idea to me. You're asking for trouble! Luckily, I escaped being drowned in all those hormones.
Not exactly the Ritz-Carlton. Wanted: Lauren Bacall.
     When I arrived -- fresh from Salt Lake City, wearing a tailored beige summer suit and apricot voile blouse -- the Barbizon was as huge as promised, but it was definitely becoming a bit worse for wear. The lobby's carpet and upholstery were faded, the latticed wood railing had lost its luster, and the palm trees were fake. 
    It looked like it had been inspired by "Casablanca," but Bacall really needed to get back in there for it to be convincing. It seemed that it could use a good scrubbing from top to bottom, and it needed something -- like people, for example, or even music -- to convey that it was a functioning enterprise. 
Where are you when we need you, Ms Bacall?
     I actually liked the lost-glory shabbiness of it -- less pressure on me to conform to some tyrannical debutante imperative -- but I was curious. Why had such a "glamorous" place been allowed to go into such decline? And where was everyone?

     I was checked in by a tired and sallow woman, who then directed me to the elevator. It was one of those old-time cage things, and I never did figure out whether the operator -- who was toothless and nearly bald (I'm serious), and seemed to be on duty night and day, was male or female. 
    It was because the elevator was not self-service that I had to take the stairs up to the roof at night. My thighs became quite attractive, for once in my life.
    I didn't care a bit that my room was more like a prison cell than a hotel suite; I was just thrilled to be in the city I had dreamed of all my life. At the time, I didn't even question -- much less resent -- the discrepancy between how the Barbizon sold itself and what it really offered. As a matter of fact, I didn't know how it sold itself or anything else about it. I just knew that my mother's friends had convinced her that it was The Only Place That Would Do.   
Heads high, tummies tight: Basic Barbizon standards.
    I had arrived in New York on a Friday afternoon and wasn't  expected at the office until Monday. I was so excited and filled with pent-up energy after the long flight that I decided to take a walk to the office building in which Trahey/Wolf was housed, so I wouldn't be nervous about finding it on my first day. 

    The building, 477 Madison Avenue at 53rd Street, was a pleasant mile and a half away. I felt like "That Girl" as I made my way along the bustling Lexington Avenue and over to Madison. I was ecstatic that I was finally in the city where I felt certain I belonged. I had the urge to stop everyone and tell them that I had just arrived.
    "It's me! I'm here!" 
    To me, it was Big News. 
Marlo thought she was "That Girl," but actually, I was.
     I was so alone! Already, I loved it. The feeling of liberation was indescribable. I could do anything I wanted. I reported to no one. I had no reputation to defend, no family dignity to preserve. 
    Still, I was being awfully well behaved. Oh well, I had 10 weeks to become truly an independent woman, free of apron strings.
    Everything I saw on my walk was fascinating. I might as well have been in Istanbul, it all looked so new and exciting to me.
    I loved the scale of the shops, in contrast to the big suburban stores back home. There was charm in the charming aspects, and there was charm -- to me, anyway -- in the decay, litter and disorienting visual overload. 

    I'm sure I looked sort of Alice in Wonderlandish as I walked along, eyes wide, staring and smiling at everything, looking up at the tall buildings like a stereotypical newcomer. Despite what everyone had told me and everything I'd read, New York was not cold, rushed and rude. People were kind and helpful. All I had to do was look a bit confused, and instantly at least one person would leap to the rescue, asking what assistance I needed. I felt like the city's mascot before I even reached my destination.
    The building at 477 Madison was a good-looking modernist work that happened to be 23 stories tall, the same as the Barbizon. I stepped into the lobby and looked through the directory of tenants. Louis Nizer was there! I'd only been in town for about three hours, and already I was in easy reach of a famous, brilliant hero of mine. I knew this would happen!
    I had read Nizer's gripping book, "My Life in Court," just months ago. It had remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 72 weeks. One critic praised it as "entertaining and philosophically instructive, an unusual combination."  I couldn't agree more.

    Nizer was said to be the highest-paid lawyer in the country. His clients at that time included Johnny Carson, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Eddie Fisher, Mae West and 85 percent of the film industry. It was he who helped Jack Valenti establish the Motion Picture Association and develop the ratings system.   
Louis Nizer was known as a dramatic -- if not melodramatic -- courtroom advocate.
    He was portrayed by George C. Scott in the 1975 movie, "Fear on Trial."
     Naturally, I wasn't about to leave without meeting him, and I was sure he would be thrilled to welcome such a big fan into his office. What could be more rewarding than to meet a sincere young person who respected your intellect and style so intensely? 
   His receptionist was quite dismissive. 
   "He is a very busy man," she said. "He's taking depositions in D.C. on Monday, and he's in the middle of preparations."
    "Won't you please ask him if I can come in and shake his hand?" I pressed her. "I just love him!"
   She sighed that Friday-afternoon sigh and slogged her way to his office.

    Within a few moments, she came back out, followed closely by the great Mr. Nizer himself.
    "I need a breath of fresh air, and here you are," he said. He rubbed his temples and loosened his tie. "Do come in and have a seat."
     He was a striking man who would have been 66 years old at that time. His face was intense, as if he belonged in a fervent 1940s drama, and his voice was theatrical, even during casual conversation. He offered me a glass of sherry. I declined.
    "Of course, Salt Lake City, a Mormon -- I am so sorry," he declared, pouring a glass for himself. "I'll give you some seltzer on ice."
    I explained that I wasn't a Mormon --  I wasn't religious, period -- but that I didn't have enough experience with alcohol to risk any impairment as I navigated my way through the busy city streets back to the Barbizon.
    "That abomination!" he said, sympathetically.
    I am surprised that I have virtually no memory of the rest of our conversation. Having been a reporter since junior high school, I had developed the equivalent of a photographic memory when it came to recalling dialogue.

    I think I was in a state of shock that I was actually in his presence, especially just a few hours after leaving life in Salt Lake City behind. I'm sure I was tired, and once I barged my way in there, I became rather shy.
    I do remember that he discouraged my ambition to become a lawyer. 
   "It's a man's world," he said.
    "So was advertising, until a woman butted in," I replied.
George C. Scott portrayed Nizer in "Fear on Trial."
    He wished me well in a very gracious fashion, and he even walked me out to the hallway to wait for the elevator. Thank you, Mr. Nizer, for giving me such a privileged welcome to New York. (He died in 1994.)
   After that afternoon, surrounded by the beauties of the city, it was a bit of a letdown to return to my room at the Barbizon, which really could not have been smaller or less attractive. The narrow space had room only for a single bed, a small writing desk and a tiny sink. Electrical appliances were not allowed. 

    Luckily I had a small, battery-operated transistor radio. I found a station, WWRL-AM, that played all soul-music all the time -- yet another dream come true. 
This room is luxurious compared to mine. It has a few touches of
prettiness, and it's HUGE, and it has a CHAIR, lamp and mirror.

    There was no place in the rooms or communal areas to prepare food. I would probably be breaking the rules -- who cares? -- by using a little immersion heater to make instant coffee each morning. 
    Showers and toilets, much to my dismay, were at the other end of the hall. I needn't have worried about privacy, though. I did not see another person on my floor the entire summer. I bet I'm not the only girl who readily mastered the skill of peeing in the sink to avoid making that long trek several times a day.
    It never occurred to me at the time that there were probably nicer accommodations available at the Barbizon, but I have found images of larger, slightly better-decorated rooms online. Everyone, though -- even Grace Kelly! -- purportedly had to use a communal bathroom.
That first night, after my incredible encounter with Louis Nizer, I got ready for bed as usual: I brushed my teeth for three full minutes; washed my face; moisturized; and gave my hair its customary 100 strokes. Then I got into my nice, clean pajamas and into bed.

And then I thought: Why am I being such a good girl, behaving as if some phantom Mama were surveilling me? Shouldn’t I “bust a move,” so to speak, and break free of all these daughterly imperatives? Isn’t there some sort of freak-out thing I could do?

And then a lovely bolt of lightning hit me. When I was an adolescent, I read that Marilyn Monroe slept “in the nude.” This concept had been thrilling and shocking to me. I read that phrase over and over again. In the nude! My god, I couldn’t even imagine how that might feel.

There would never be a better time than right now to give it a try.

I won’t go into detail about how ravishing it felt. Suffice it to say that I never wore pajamas again.

    My solitary life in this huge old building was a bit like the movie "The Shining," which was released about 10 years later. There was exhilaration in having the run of the place (although how would you make use of it? skateboard?) but it was kind of spooky, too. I didn't understand how they could even pay the front desk clerk, much less maintain this anachronistic beast, without full occupancy.
    In "The Shining," at least the hallways were clean and well lit:
Mommy, there is nobody anywhere! It doesn't make sense!

    I thought perhaps they had put all the cute girls way, way upstairs in huge luxury suites, attended by scantily clad studs, and I was in the scullery maid section. Or maybe there was a section where girls were imprisoned, perhaps for getting pregnant, or consorting with men beneath their station, or men who were married. Maybe there were women's libbers who were being tied to their beds, to keep them from fomenting revolution.
Looking south from a Barbizon window.
     I did some exploring of the various floors and found that each one had common areas that were entirely different in their style and color scheme from the others. I don't think they had been updated since the 1920s, but I loved their patterned wallpapers and fabrics, varied wood trimmings, elegant writing desks, cozy window seats with flowered cushions and antique accessories. 
    Sometimes I felt as if I were a furtive interloper in an old museum that no one had seen or touched (or dusted) in decades. Everywhere I looked there were intriguing design elements and a refreshingly pre-modern use of color. 
    But I never saw another person during any of my expeditions.
    I was glad that Eileen Ford and Vogue had stopped requiring their models to live here. It would have been stressful to be constantly scrutinized by ambitious young beauties who regarded everyone as "competition."
Grace Kelly was "the face of the Barbizon."
    The only proof I had that I wasn't the only person living at the Barbizon was that every weekend, I went up to the roof to soak up enough sun in two days to keep me looking tan all week. Six or eight other girls had the same idea. It was miserable up there -- blazing hot and humid. The roof smelled like coal tar. The odor of suntan lotion was almost as bad. To make matters even more perverse, we were all smoking. It was torture, but it was worth it to look fabulous for the next five days. 
We Barbizon girls were determined to be NOTICED.
     Someone always brought up a radio, but white people's music that summer was about as bad as it gets, as far as I was concerned. They played "Mony Mony" incessantly, along with "Hey Jude," "Harper Valley PTA," "Mrs. Robinson," "The Folsom Prison Blues," "Suzie Q" and "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy." Yick! You ladies need to come with me to the black end of the dial. Now that's some music!
    I don't recall having a single conversation with anyone up there, and there was virtually no interaction among the others, either. 
     I began working at Trahey/Wolf with a very well-deserved tan the Monday after I arrived. My time there remains as vivid  as if it were last week, instead of 45 years ago ( ).

     Besides the sunbathing crowd, the only other evidence I found that someone besides me was living at the Barbizon is that one Saturday night, I decided to go see "Rosemary's Baby" by myself, which did require some courage on my part. 
    I knew I'd be standing in a long line of couples, and there I would be -- alone. The old high-school anxiety was still there: they'll think I'm not "popular." I decided to plow through it, and I was gratified that I had done so, with my head held high. It sounds so simple, but at that age, it wasn't for me.
    As I entered the lobby of the Barbizon on my way out, I was surprised to see that several "gentleman callers" were waiting for their dates to descend the grand staircase. There were six or seven of them at the most, all scrubbed and perfumed.
    I felt like the Scarlet Letter girl as I made my solitary way out the door, except that I had an "L" on my bosom -- connoting "loser" -- instead of the "A" that poor Hester Prynne got stuck with. Anyway, here was one more tidbit of evidence that I was not the only girl incarcerated in this increasingly heinous, haunted fortress.

    After I began my job,  I purchased fruit and milk on my way home each afternoon and ate them along with the delicious whole-grain and nut breads my mother sent me weekly. 
    The gallant and protective Puerto Rican proprietors of the bodegas where I bought my fruit began saving "the very best" plums, apricots and pears for me. They were ready and waiting in a little paper bag.
Puerto Rican people were warm, generous and protective.
     I had to argue with them over and over again to persuade them to accept money from me. They told me they would never let a daughter of theirs move to a place like this at my age.
    It surprises me to  realize that I spent most of my "off-duty" time in my little room, while all the grandeur of the city was right outside the front door. What was wrong with me? 
    Maybe I was taking in as much "newness" as I could handle, just by being there, being alone and doing my job. I wrote elaborately descriptive, high-spirited and illustrated letters to my parents, college friends and dear Wes Bowen about everything that happened to me every day (and that was quite a lot). I spent many evenings and weekends sitting at my tiny desk, in my tiny room, absolutely relaxed and content about documenting this wonderful experience I was having.

    I never did visit Wall Street, Columbia University, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, Lincoln Center or the United Nations. I didn't even take the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. All of that would come when I moved back three years later.
    I did make a point of seeing some buildings I had learned about in my architecture class. It filled me with joy to turn a corners and see them "in the flesh," especially the Lever and Seagram buildings. 
The Lever Building -- what a beauty.
     I saw the Woolworth building and strolled along the gorgeous Park Avenue to see the Pan Am. I visited the Guggenheim, which as far as I was concerned was absurdly designed for viewing artwork, but I was fully engrossed in the artwork itself, especially the paintings of Salvador Dali. I had never realized how much more powerful a painting can be in person, and I had been intensely drawn to his work since I won an encyclopedia in the fourth grade.
    I had three little adventures that summer, which I'm sure I'll write about in the future: I was chosen to get a free haircut at the Vidal Sassoon school -- which was a hilarious, humiliating episode -- and I spent an afternoon, by invitation, at Andy Warhol's predictably freaky "Factory." I was also taken under the wing of an executive at Tiffany and Co., and he granted my wish to have "breakfast" there.

    The Barbizon was dying by the end of the '60s, I was later told, because there were less restrictive and more attractive housing options for young women. Parents had become less protective, girls had become more bold. The quaint rules and rituals weren't charming anymore -- they were just silly. 
Barbizon63 offers a swanky and ultramodern environment in its condo units.
     After attempting to resuscitate itself as a conventional hotel in the 1980s, the Barbizon was gutted and transformed into a luxury condo building, with 69 units priced from $1 million up to $17 million for a penthouse. 

    I didn't make one friend or go on one date during my summer in New York, but I didn't care. That fact honestly hadn't occurred to me until I wrote this piece. 
    I was where I had always wanted to be. I was alone, which I had never dreamed would be so energizing. It was a joy and a comfort to discover how rewarding my own company could be. My life back home was filled with family, friends, boyfriends and professor/mentors. I had none of that here, and I wasn't lonely for a moment. 
   It was, indeed, the happiest summer of my life.

My weeks as an intern at a legendary advertising agency were unforgettable. Talk about "Mad Men"! The Bad Women were easily their match.